Gooey Louie's: King Louie's Empire aims to convert St. Louisans to pizza by the slice

On this piece of pizza — from a 30-inch pie — comes shredded pepperoni, fresh jalapeños and onions. Slideshow: Photos from inside King Louie's Empire Pizza.
On this piece of pizza — from a 30-inch pie — comes shredded pepperoni, fresh jalapeños and onions. Slideshow: Photos from inside King Louie's Empire Pizza. Corey Woodruff

Gooey Louie's: King Louie's Empire aims to convert St. Louisans to pizza by the slice

1131 Washington Avenue; 314-553-9999.
Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 11 a.m-3:30 a.m. Fri.-Sat.

King Louie's Empire Deli & Pizza
Slice (cheese)...$2.50
"Big Ace"...$9
"Gyro" pizza (14-inch)...$21

You cut a pizza into wedges (everywhere outside of St. Louis, that is) and you call the result "slices of pizza," but this is not the same thing as "pizza by the slice."

The former is geometry. The latter is art.

For pizza by the slice, you first must engineer a single slice large enough to be a meal unto itself (or paired with one other slice at the most), yet not so large that you have to charge more than a few bucks for it. The crust should be thin, but it must also support sauce, cheese and toppings. Ideally — this is mandatory in New York City, the Paris of pizza by the slice, but St. Louis isn't yet a walk-and-eat city — you should be able to hold the entire slice in one hand, creasing it lengthwise if necessary, without the end drooping. This prevents the toppings from sliding off and splattering across your lap or the ground.

A dozen (at least) by-the-slice joints should be battling one another for supremacy downtown. Partisans should be arguing the merits of each online. Yet St. Louis has remained curiously immune to the charms of the slice. The address of King Louie's Empire Deli & Pizza proves the point. The restaurant opened in March in the Washington Avenue space that has already been home to three by-the-slice concepts in the past five years: the NYC-style B&T Pizza, the St. Louis-style Il Posto Pizzeria and finally, very briefly, Presto.

"Wait, wait, wait," you interrupt. "King Louie's?"

Yes, this new venture shares the name of Matt McGuire's late, much loved spot on Chouteau Avenue. No, it isn't connected to that restaurant. This King Louie's does boast a local pedigree, however. Owners Mike and Dave Rook — the latter formerly executive chef at Copia — are the brothers of acclaimed Annie Gunn's chef Lou Rook III, and all three men are the son of Lou Rook Jr., who founded King Louie's Drive-In in Wood River, Illinois. Dave and Mike are working to open King Louie's, a 24-hour diner and bar & grill concept, in the space adjacent to King Louie's Empire Deli & Pizza, which I will henceforth refer to simply as Empire so my head doesn't explode. (There will be a quiz later.)

Empire features a clean, efficient design. To the left as you enter the restaurant is a small display case with deli meats and a long counter displaying cooked pizzas. Behind this are the deck ovens, as well as a small area where a cook can prepare sandwiches. You order along the counter, pay at the register and then take a seat in the dining room or wait for your to-go order.

Slideshow: Photos from inside King Louie's Empire Pizza

The by-the-slice options include the classics — cheese, pepperoni, sausage — plus a rotating roster of various combinations of meats and vegetables. Thanks to a thick blanket of melted mozzarella, a basic slice (plain or with a topping or two) makes for a filling lunch or light dinner. Two slices will defeat all but the most famished. Depending on how much cheese covers your slice, the crust might support the toppings. In general, though, the front half of the slice will dip and sag. This unfortunate shortcoming is (somewhat) mitigated by the fact that your to-go order comes in a slice-size box, so you can walk and eat with a plate.

The crust is airy, with a generally unobtrusive flavor. The sauce brings the mildly acidic bite of tomato without sugary sweetness. The quality of the toppings is good. Bite-size hunks of sausage remain tender even after the kitchen pops your order into the oven for a quick, hot zap. Empire slices its pepperoni into thin threads rather than the traditional rounds. At first glance it looks like a pizza dusted with saffron. The result is a subtler pepperoni flavor.

You can order whole pies at Empire, either built with your own selection of toppings or from a selection of house specialties. I tried two of the specialty styles, the "Gyro" and the "Barbecued Chicken." The former brings a pie with mozzarella and feta cheeses, spinach, thick slices of fresh tomato, onion, green pepper, very thinly sliced gyro meat and a sort of slaw of shredded lettuce tossed with tzatziki. The tomatoes and spinach pair well with the strongly seasoned meat (more lamb than beef in flavor). Ask for the lettuce-tzatziki mix on the side so you can add it to taste. For me, at least, a little went a long way.

The barbecue-chicken pizza was the single dud I encountered at Empire, its crust overloaded with a spicy but far too thin barbecue sauce and great glops of melted cheddar cheese — so much cheddar that the mozzarella beneath it had failed to melt. The chicken was bland; slices of raw jalapeño dominated the flavor.

With pizzas on display in front of you, you might not even think to glance at the sandwich menu, but the selection offers simple pleasures. "Anna May's Cheesesteak" is a slightly upscale take on the classic sandwich: melted provolone and caramelized onions and peppers accent rather than swamp thin slices of seared, tender rib eye. Likewise, flavorful rare roast beef is the attraction of the "Big Ace," while cream cheese spiked with a classic vinegar-hot pepper giardiniera blend adds a little heat and creaminess.

Will Empire be the joint that finally sparks the great downtown by-the-slice war? Baby steps. It should at least gain a foothold where others have stumbled. A positive development, however you cut it.

Slideshow: Photos from inside King Louie's Empire Pizza

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